There’s a moment to savour in the 1930 Marx Brothers comedy Animal Crackers when Groucho flings woo at two wealthy women while wishing he could tell us what he really thinks of them. ‘Pardon me while I have a strange interlude,’ he says, stepping out of the scene to deliver a solemn monologue in a hollow, faraway voice:
Here I am talkin’ of parties. I came down here for a party. What happens? Nothing. Not even ice-cream. The gods look down and laugh. This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.
Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, written in 1923, was a four-hour psychodrama acclaimed for its modern use of soliloquy and unflinching approach to adultery, madness and abortion. That the Marx Brothers could so ruthlessly spoof O’Neill’s recently established theatrical trademark – along with those poetic non sequiturs, the invocation of indifferent deities, a whiff of the ineffable beneath the hokey vernacular and the doom-laden register – tells us plenty about the cultural range and tolerances of 1930s cinema audiences, the Marx Brothers’ hair-trigger sensitivity to intellectual pretension, the giddy extent of the 42-year-old playwright’s celebrity and, finally, something about O’Neill’s writing itself.
The weaknesses, then and now, are the portentousness, the thumping candour (not to be confused with honesty, or even sincerity), the heightened sense of the bathetic, and the humdrum observations presented as profound insights into the human condition. They’re weaknesses, but not necessarily flaws, as what fails on the page can be great on the stage.
Weakness, as it happens, was O’Neill’s strength as a writer. He is the laureate of eloquent losers and his work gives voice to a disenfranchised underclass of prostitutes, sailors, drug addicts, suicides, nomads, deadbeats, fringe-dwellers and no-hopers, presented for our instruction and, of course, entertainment. The epic length of some of the plays and his characters’ often chronic loquaciousness make the O’Neill experience a gruelling one for actors and audiences, and rightly so. He suffered for his art and, as the old gag has it, now it’s our turn.
His life was simply awful, an existence bookended by a grim metaphor of rootlessness. His dying words were reportedly: ‘I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room.’ Between those two rooms, the first on Broadway and the last in Boston, he struggled through sixty-five years of intermittent soul-draining misery. After an unhappy nomadic childhood, gloomy Catholic boarding school and a brief spell at Princeton University, he bummed around the world as a merchant seaman, developed a taste for liquor, and contracted tuberculosis. He was a remarkably bad poet, publishing some dud verses when working briefly for the New London Telegraph in 1912. A spell in a sanatorium led to his decision to become a writer and he was an emerging theatrical talent when his parents (both actors) and much-loved elder brother died in quick succession. Two failed marriages produced three children; his third wife, the actress Carlotta Monterey, was addicted, though not fatally, to potassium bromide, a clobbering sedative available over the counter in American drugstores until 1975. His two sons, Eugene Jr and Shane, both committed suicide, the former predeceasing his father, who later disowned his daughter, Oona. She married Charlie Chaplin (she was eighteen, he fifty-four) and O’Neill never spoke to her again. His last ten years were spent as an increasingly reclusive invalid, with a debilitating nervous condition, misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease, that caused his hands to tremble so violently that he couldn’t hold a pen, let alone write a word. A morose alcoholic, he was subject to long depressions. A suicide attempt at the age of twenty-four informs the content of Exorcism, written seven years later.
This was the last of twenty one-act plays written during an intensely productive six-year period from 1913 onwards. Performed for a fortnight in March 1920 by a Cape Cod theatre troupe called the Provincetown Players, it was then swiftly withdrawn by the
author, perhaps to avoid distressing his father, who had recently suffered a stroke. O’Neill attempted to destroy all copies of Exorcism, but last summer a 23-page typescript turned up among the papers of the Hollywood screenwriter Philip Yordan, a Christmas gift to him from O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton. This is now housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, along with a huge collection of O’Neill papers ‘stretching over ninety linear feet’.
It’s a play about failure, divorce, adultery, suicide and, surprisingly, redemption. Plateloads of spinach, with a dollop of ice cream to follow. The setting is impeccably sordid: a dingy Manhattan waterfront room above ‘the lowest type of grog shop’ in which Ned Malloy, a bitter 24-year-old, recounts to his flophouse roommate Jimmy a recent bleak encounter with a hooker in his bid to secure a divorce. This monologue is a persuasively troubling confession of sexual disgust, contrasting with the earlier inconsequential but loaded exchanges between Malloy and the dimly amiable Jimmy. Overcome with self-loathing Malloy decides to kill himself with a morphine overdose (O’Neill at the same age had favoured Veronal, a barbiturate). He appears to do so as the curtain falls momentarily, denoting the passage of twenty-four hours. When the curtain rises we are led to suppose that Ned is dead, mourned by Jimmy and another bibulous crony, the blimpish Major Andrews. But no – like the hooker encounter, a pivotal episode is reported, not portrayed. Ned was discovered in the nick of time by his friends, who summoned a doctor with a stomach pump.
Not an exorcism, then, but a resurrection. Malloy, on the brink of oblivion, finds himself revitalised and raring to go. What ensues could in other hands be the stuff of black comedy, but instead we are offered a scene of spiritual redemption and familial reconciliation as Ned’s estranged but doting father turns up with the offer of clinical treatment and a job in the family firm. There appear to be the beginnings of a rapprochement, and even the chance to revive the failed marriage. Ned launches into an overwrought and unconvincing declaration of life-affirming intent: ‘The Past is finally cremated. I feel reborn, I tell you! I’ve had a bath! I’ve been to confession! My sins are forgiven me!’ There follows a scene of raucous boozy male sodality involving a late-arriving character/device called Nordstrum, ‘a tall, husky blonde Swede’ in a flannel shirt and overalls who says little more than ‘Pi yimminy’ and is a clunky symbol of potential escape.
The play ends on an ambiguously promising note. Malloy is a reanimated Lazarus with a leftover life to live and plans to spend a month in rehab before heading west with Nordstrum to work on a farm. O’Neill later tackled the original Gospel account of resurrection at inordinate length in Lazarus Laughed (1925): with a cast of over a hundred, it is barely performable and a challenging read. O’Neill, like his prose equivalent Thomas Wolfe, can be a windbag.
Exorcism is clearly an apprentice work, but a late apprentice work. O’Neill emerged in that same year as a major playwright, challenging mainstream American theatre’s staple of musicals, farces and melodramas with a torrent of ground-breaking and provocative dramas. His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, written in 1918, opened on Broadway in February 1920 to great acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize. The same year saw Anna Christie and The Emperor Jones, followed by The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire Under the Elms, All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Welded (all 1924), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and, proving that dying is easy and comedy hard, Ah, Wilderness! (1933). Along with Shakespeare and Shaw he was the most widely produced English-language playwright of the 1930s, with a formidable reputation within and beyond the United States. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936, a recognition followed by a ten-year silence until the knock-out double-whammy of The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten. His greatest play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956, and a fourth Pulitzer winner), was published posthumously. It’s a formidable body of work, with more than thirty full-length and twenty one-act plays. Most writers would kill for the titles alone.
Three of O’Neill’s one-act seafaring plays from the period preceding Exorcism were staged last month off Broadway by the Wooster Group and the New York City Players, reflecting a renewed interest in his early work and confirming that his stock is on the rise. (A new production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night starring David Suchet opens at the Apollo Theatre in London this month.) Publication of Exorcism in the New Yorker last year led to a low-wattage spat about honouring a dead author’s wishes, although Carlotta Monterey sanctioned the printing of Long Day’s Journey Into Night against her late husband’s explicit direction that the play remain unpublished for twenty-five years after his death. O’Neill’s reputation benefited hugely from that decision, and so did we. Does Exorcism likewise add to our knowledge and understanding of the author’s life and work? Most certainly. Is it a great play? Hardly – and Edward Albee (a dramatist unlikely to be spoofed in current Hollywood comedies) is surely correct to call it, in his brief, deflationary foreword, ‘not a very important milestone in his development as a dramatist’. O’Neill is nevertheless an unquestionably great playwright and anything that adds to our knowledge and understanding should merit our attention.
The slim volume is bulked up by a photographic facsimile of the original typescript, reproduced at a scale too small to be read with the naked eye. The facsimile pagination is not reflected in the published version (which runs to fifty-seven pages) and there is a disappointing lack of scholarly commentary or apparatus, suggesting publication was something of a rushed job. A ‘glowing notice’ by the contemporary critic Alexander Woollcott is mentioned but not included; quotations (presumably from O’Neill’s correspondence) are unattributed; and the oddly punctuated introduction by Dr Louise Bernard, Curator of American Literature: Prose and Drama at the Beinecke Library, is opaque and uninformative. O’Neill deserves better.